A pervasive climate of fear

I’ve been reading the Goldenbridge chapter of the Ryan report again. (Reading the whole report will be the work of months, if not years.) One thing (among others) struck me anew…

Sr Alida recalls her early years in religious life as being dominated by fear. On reflection she cannot understand how she accepted so many demands and pressures without protest. (7.219)

Exactly. This is how authoritarian religions work, after all, and Catholicism is nothing if not authoritarian – still, now, let alone in Ireland in the 1940s. Sister ‘Alida’ was trained by fear and she passed it on to the children she was in charge of.

The religious sisters who subsequently held management responsibility lived in a tightly controlled and authoritarian world. Questioning was defined as arrogance and led to blaming of the individual…No distinction appears to have been made between being a ‘good’ religious and being a ‘good’ childcare worker. The characteristics that were valued appear to have been obedience and dedication…The unsafe world of Goldenbridge developed a very particular culture which could not meet the needs of children. Very powerless people had enormous and immediate power over troubled and troublesome children. The abuse of the power and powerlessness was almost inevitable. (7.224)

In other words, a recipe for a disastrous way to take care of desolate children: fear, control, authoritarianism, slavishness, sadism, all gathered together into ‘enormous and immediate power’: the perfect nightmare.

Overall, there was a high level of severe corporal punishment in Goldenbridge, resulting in a pervasive climate of fear in the Institution. (7.232)

Yes but not just a pervasive climate of fear…Along with that climate, and inseparable from it, was a pervasive climate of unlove, of hostility, of anger…of hatred.

This is perhaps too obvious to point out, but a pervasive climate of fear created by a harshly punitive regime is inevitably also a pervasive climate of unlove – and that’s what was truly corrosive about Goldenbridge (and the other industrial schools). Reading the report, you just can’t escape that; it jumps off every page. There was no love there, and there was abundant fury and violence and frank hatred. The witnesses all say the same thing – they all felt utterly alone there, they had no one to turn to, that was the worst thing.

Hatred needs to be recognized as such. The pervasive climate of fear at Goldenbridge wasn’t just a matter of excessively harsh discipline. It’s possible to be both loving and strict, even ‘strict’ in the sense of using some corporal punishment…but there is a cut-off point. There is a point at which quantity becomes quality, and the corporal punishment is no longer compatible with anything that can be called love. This applies, mutatis mutandis, to ‘honour’ killings and forced marriage too. Whether God hates women or not, some of God’s fans certainly do hate women, and act accordingly. That needs to be acknowledged.

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